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Another Perspective

Remembering Rabi'a al-Adawiyya: An 8th Century Woman Mystic

There are many women throughout history whose elevated spiritual lives can inspire our own. When I was researching God and Dreams: Is There A Connection? I came across such a woman that most people do not know. Rabi'a (717-801) was a mystic, ascetic and one of the first Sufis. Like others who have an exquisitely mature spiritual awareness, Rabi'a's insights and teachings transcend her own religious tradition.

It is believed that Rabi'a was the fourth daughter of her parents, as Rabi'a means fourth. Her family was quite poor, but free. They lived in Basra, which at the time was an important religious, military and commercial seaport. After her parents died, when Rabi'a was still a young woman, she was captured and sold to a rich merchant to be his slave. During the day she would do the merchant's housework. At night she prayed. One night when her master observed her in prayer, he reported seeing a light not only surrounding Rabi'a, but filling his entire house. He was so awe-struck that when morning came, he gave Rabi'a her freedom.

Rabi'a went to the desert outside of Basra. There she focused on her relationship with God and strived to do his will. Rabi'a concentrated on God's love, believing and teaching that love alone is the path to God. Rabi'a's approach to communing with God placed no value in the use of reason or logic. She preferred to use the "eye" of the heart to apprehend God and his mysteries. This can be seen in a frequent prayer of hers: "O my Joy and my Desire, my Life and my Friend. If you are satisfied with me, then, O Desire of my heart, my happiness is attained." In reply to a question regarding whether or not she hated Satan, Rabi'a said, "My love for God so possesses me that no place remains to hate the devil."

Her extended hours of prayer were not devoted to asking things of God, but in talking with him. Often Rabi'a prayed: "I have made you the Companion of my heart, but my body is available for those who seek its company, and my body is friendly towards its guests, but the Beloved of my heart is the Guest of my soul." It is reported that when the Amir of Basra proposed marriage to her, she responded: "I am not interested, really, in possessing all you own, nor in making you my slave, nor in having my attention distracted from God for even a split second."

Rabi’a was a respected teacher. Her authority was unquestioned. Among her teachings was the belief that fear and hope work like veils that get in the way of seeing God clearly. Removing these veils enables seekers to see God in all his beauty. Rabi’a was asked one day why she was carrying a burning torch and a bucket of water. She explained: “I am going to light a fire in Paradise and pour water on to Hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether from before the pilgrims and their purpose may be sure.” Another prayer ascribed to her is: “O my Lord, if I worship you from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell. If I worship you in hope of Paradise, exclude me from it. But if I worship you for your own sake, then withhold not from me your Eternal Beauty.”

Rabi’a believed God was always with her. She spent most of the hours of each day talking openly and honestly with him. This was one of her great gifts. Rabi’a had difficulty, however, understanding why talking with God was difficult for others and why for so many God seemed distant. She’d say to them, “How long will you keep pounding on an open door begging for someone to open it?”

When she died in her 80s, her possessions included a reed mat, a screen, a pottery jug and a bed that doubled as her prayer rug. That is all. As an ascetic, material possessions were not important to her. “I should be ashamed to ask for the things of this world from him to whom the world belongs,” she said, “and how should I ask for them from those to whom it does not belong?”

I want to close with one final prayer Rabi’a liked to say when she was alone at night. It conveys the essence of her spirituality, how she placed her love for God above everything else. “O my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and kings have shut their doors, and every lover is alone with his beloved, and here I am alone with you.”

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